Monthly Archives: April 2016

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 5: Through the Looking Glass

Things start off with a decent enough sci-fi mystery steeped in the history of the Marvel Universe.  The Guardians, with Captain Marvel along for the ride, are cruising along on their merry way when suddenly a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier appears right out of the ether!  If that weren’t surprising enough, it’s being commanded by none other than Nick Fury and crewed by the likes of Dum-Dum Dugan, Jimmy Woo, and Jessica Drew.  Though their stated reason for being out here is to make sure the Kree-Skrull War never happens again, most of the people onboard are either dead or have had their standing in the Marvel Universe dramatically altered over the past few years.  Bendis plays up the confusion in an effective manner for most of the story and most of the interaction between the two groups is fun.  Especially when Rocket Raccoon and Fury mix it up.  However, the revelation as to what’s really going on is fairly underwhelming and I was left wondering what the point of all this was at the end of the story.  Was it just to have Frank Cho draw these characters and show us how well he can draw a firefight in space?  If so, then I guess the results make it all worth it in the end.

Valerio Schiti illustrates the rest of the volume and, even if he’s not quite as detailed as Cho, shows why he’s a great fit for the book and Bendis’ style in general.  Not only does he great variety of alien species and locations look fantastic under his pen, but the conversation scenes have a fitting energy with the expressiveness with which he gives the characters.  It’s not enough to get me to care about the two chapters of “The Black Vortex” included here.  Then again, I’m not sure any artist could manage that.  At least Schiti and Bendis work together well enough to send the volume off on a high point as Peter Quill and the rest of the cast get dragged back to Spartax after it’s finally revealed to him that he was elected to be its new ruler.  They get a taste of the high life and have to deal with a threat that wants Gamora’s head on a platter.  It’s a good dose of adventure that’s in line with the more entertaining parts of Bendis’ (very uneven) run.  The writer has shown that he’s not the best fit for the characters or their adventures, but there’s enough good stuff here to get me to stick around for another volume to see if “Emperor Quill” is the angle he needs to really click with them.

Princess Jellyfish vol. 1

Tsukimi Kurashita is an 18-year-old jellyfish fanatic living in Tokyo with a gaggle of other fangirls with their own obsessions.  Residing in a communal apartment and going by the nickname “Amars,” they live by their own camaraderie (and off of the goodwill of their parents) while maintaining a healthy distrust of those scary people known as “stylish individuals.”  It’s one such individual, Kurano, that comes to Tsukimi’s rescue when she tries to save a jellyfish in a pet store and crashes at her place for the night.  Though this woman is quite friendly for a “stylish individual,” she’s harboring one big surprise that’s going to completely upend our protagonist’s life.  Mind you, this is before all of the Amars girls find out that their apartment is going to be bulldozed to make way for a set of high-rise apartments!

There’s a lot about this series that is familiar.  From the “Save the building!” plot that could’ve come straight from an 80’s movie to the shoujo love triangle that starts to form here between Tsukimi and the two brothers, this is not a manga you’re going to read for its inventive storytelling.  Yet mangaka Akiko Higashimura does demonstrate some excellent comedic timing with her art, which is appropriately flashy for a series about women utilizing their beauty as a weapon.  That’s one of the two novel bits here as Kurano teaches the girls about how a woman looks is part of their arsenal for war in modern society.  In order for them to save their apartment complex (and for Tsukimi to get the guy of her dreams) they’ll have to master this complex art from the ground up.

The other novelty of the plot is something that I’m not sure is intentional on Higashimura’s part.  You see, if this was a series about a bunch of male otaku freeloading off of their parents to live in Tokyo, I doubt it’d be as charming.  Even “Genshiken” had its characters get jobs.  Except in this case the women’s lives are romanticized to a surprising extent.  I’m actually rooting for these jobless female slackers to save their apartment and continue living their indulgent lives even though I can’t imagine doing the same if their genders were reversed.  It’s a clear double-standard, but one that isn’t a dealbreaker for me yet.  As I said, I’m not sure if this is something that Higashimura has considered when she was creating this story.  At least she’s delivered one that’s enjoyable enough for me to want to see where she’s going with it.

Image Previews Picks: July 2016

The annual Image Expo was held earlier this month and (BIG SURPRISE) a lot of cool-sounding new titles were announced.  “The Black Monday Murders” is Jonathan Hickman’s new title with artist Tomm Coker and is based on the idea that all of the major financial institutions that run the world are actually secret schools of magic.  Bonus world-building material is promised in each issue which may give me an incentive to pick it up (digitally).  Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are back with “Kill or Be Killed,” about a troubled young man who is compelled to go out and kill who he perceives to be bad people.  Pitched as a thriller and deconstruction of vigilantism, it also sounds like Brubaker is working out his desire to write “The Punisher” independent of Marvel.  Another creative team I’m quite fond of, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, are doing their first Image title with “Moonshine.”  The title is both a reference to the prohibition-era setting of the story and the fact that it appears to involve werewolves in some fashion.  The “Batgirl” creative team of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr is giving us “Motor Crush,” about a woman who competes in a motorcycle racing league by day and is a skull-cracking vigilante by night.

These are just the titles from the creative teams that I like.  Plenty more titles were announced and I’ll be checking them out as word-of-mouth dictates.  Hey, for all I know it could be one of those that turns out to be more entertaining than the ones I’ve mentioned here.  Except for the Remender/Opena joint I didn’t, that is.

Snotgirl #1:  From “Scott Pilgrim” creator Bryan Lee O’Malley, who’s writing it, and newcomer Leslie Whung, who’s drawing it.  This is about Lotte Person, a social media star who is either living a life to be envied or a disgusting allergy-ridden mess.  A year after this was announced I’m still wondering who would read a title about someone’s allergy-related hang-ups, even if they’re diehard fans of O’Malley.  Then again, I’m sure the creator has thought this through and has a solid idea about where to take this.  It could be possible that before the end of the year you’ll be reading a review where I’m forced to eat my words.  I don’t think it’s likely, but stranger things have happened to me.

Millarworld Annual 2016:  On one hand, this is obvious self-promotion for Mark Millar and all of the titles he has created under the “Millarworld” banner.  On the other, it’s a chance for new writers and artists to get some exposure and a foot in the door of the industry.  So I guess Millar deserves some appreciation for that.  It’s not going to make me pick this up, but if it turns out to be the entry point into the industry for my next favorite writer/artist then the endeavor will have justified itself (years from now).

Spawn Kills Everyone!:  Pretty much what it says on the cover, which is a good 20 years past its sell-by date.  I’ll be very interested in knowing what the sales numbers are for this series since it seems like the kind of thing that only diehard fans of the character would be interested in.  Also, while this one-shot tells us that Spawn is going to kill EVERY hero, it’s worth pointing out that he did have his ass handed to him by one of the alternate-universe Mark Graysons in the done-in-one crossover event issue of “Invincible.”  Artist Ryan Ottley even published a sketch he did of that Mark grinning while holding Spawn’s bloody chains.  A one-shot depicting that battle is one I’d actually be interested in buying.

Cry Havoc vol. 1:  Mything in Action:  As I recall, the original pitch for this series was “not about a lesbian werewolf going off to war.”  Coming from Si Spurrier, the man who gave us the Legion arc of “X-Men:  Legacy,” and “Crossed:  Wish You Were Here,” this sounded like something I wanted to read.  Now that the first collection is out, what this series is about becomes a bit more clear.  While what I said above is true, the series looks to focus on its protagonist, Lou, at three stages in her life:  When she was attacked on the street by a werewolf.  When she went off to fight in Afghanistan with other shape-shifters.  When she was captured and became MIA.  Now I’m even more interested in checking this series out when this collection arrives.

Bitch Planet vol. 2:  President Bitch:  The series that makes taking the patriarchy down a notch fun returns for a second volume.  I’m not sure how you’d be able to pass it up with a subtitle like that either.  Still, if you’re wondering how the president got that nickname, then you’re going to want to read this volume.

Prophet vol. 5:  Earth War:  Was this series coming apart after a promising start, or did I just need to give it a full re-read after vol. 5 didn’t really thrill me?  Expect the answer to that quandry after I get my hands on this final volume of what started out as Brandon Graham and co.’s re-invention of the Rob Liefeld-created character and has now extended into the creator’s whole universe.  Even if this does wind up being a bunch of well-intentioned, well-illustrated gibberish, Liefeld deserves credit for letting Graham and co. run completely wild with one of his toys.

Revival vol. 7:  Forward:  At the end of vol. 6, Officer Dana Cypress’ life had come completely apart as she went on the run with her revival sister Emily.  While they’re both still committed to solving the mystery of the revivers, as well as who killed Emily, this time around they’ll have to deal with an… Amish assassin?  Uh, if you say so (writer) Tim Seeley.  Not that this is a series that has suffered for quirk, but this particular development doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would fit neatly alongside all of the other strangeness here.  At least the promise of Military Governor Cale unleashing her plan for the citizens of Wasau sounds like something I want to read about.

Starve vol. 2:  Will chef Gavin Cruikshank’s quest to get back what his his while burning his former show to the ground sentiment and sanctimony?  Or will creators Brian Wood and Daniel Zezelj deliver a bitter yet satisfying story of everyone getting exactly what they deserve in satisfyingly creative ways?  This is advance-solicited for August, so you’ll just have to wait that much longer to find out!

Sunstone vol. 5:  Lisa and Ally’s relationship hit a rough patch (to put it mildly) at the end of the previous volume.  While the present-day sequences  in the previous volumes make it clear that they eventually get over it, the mystery of how that’s going to happen is likely to drive the story here.  Creator Stjepan Sejic has shown a keen understanding of human nature with this series so far, and I’m betting he’ll make his protagonists’ journey back to each other one that feels worthwhile rather than a forced plot point.  This volume is also advertised as the end of the series’ “first arc” with the promise of more to come.  Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Dark Horse Previews Picks: July 2016

Between the two sales-challenged manga series that I routinely talk up, “Vinland Saga” and “Eden:  It’s an Endless World!,” it looks like the former is getting a reprieve later this year.  Kodansha U.S.A. announced at the Emerald City Comic-Con that vol. 8 of Makoto Yukimura’s excellent historical viking action series will be coming out later this year.  The appearance of future volumes on these shores was not confirmed.  So if you want to know more about the adventures of Thorfinn and Einar in the New World you’ll have to buy a copy of vol. 8 for yourself, and one more for a close friend (which would be Steve in my case).

As for “Eden…”  Hope continues to spring eternal there.  If the two-and-a-half year schedule between publishing new volumes holds, then we’ll see a new volume later this year.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and Dark Horse will publish the last four volumes in two-in-one editions.  Or maybe we’ll get nothing at all.  Anime Central is in four weeks and that’s when most of the company’s big manga news broke last year.  If they have any more announcements like “I am a Hero” or new volumes of other series that have been on hiatus, it’ll be there and I’ll have commentary after it happens.

Angel Catbird vol. 1:  Renowned writer Margaret Atwood’s first comic and one of the company’s highest-profile releases this year as a result.  It’s described as a pulp-inspired superhero adventure where a young genetic engineer’s DNA is spliced with that of a cat and an owl.  Numerous cat puns are also promised as well.  I’m not sure if this is the comic people were expecting from someone with all of the awards Atwood has won (and are helpfully listed in the solicitation text).  But if she wants to dabble in genre work like this, then all that’s going to matter is if it winds up being fun or not.  That’ll forgive any amount of silliness.

Black Hammer #1:  This series from writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dean Ormston was announced a while back before it was delayed due to (what I think was) problems with the artist’s health.  It’s back now, and it has Lemire diving into the superhero genre outside of his work at the Big Two.  The premise is certainly different:  The champions of Spiral City were banished from existence after a multiversal crisis and now spend their days toiling on a timeless farm.  Now, after all these years, they’re going to try and find their way home.  You definitely get the feeling that there’s more going on here, so it’ll be interesting what the first issue sets up.  Assuming the art is your cup of tea.  Ormston’s style defaults to “creepy,” which makes him a pretty good stand-in for Lemire on art.  Expect an unsettling read, if nothing else.

Bounty #1 (of 10):  “Rat Queens” creator Kurtis Wiebe teams with artist Mindy Lee for a series described as the “[The One I Just Mentioned] meets Firefly.”  That’s probably reason enough for a good number of fans to get excited about this.  Not me, though.  I’ve read through vol. 3 of “Rat Queens” and the shine is coming off of that series as it invokes a lot of drama without really taking the time to establish its characters or the world.  In fact, I’ve read a decent amount of stuff from Wiebe so far and have yet to encounter something that I’ve enjoyed without reservation.  Maybe this will finally be that series?  Or maybe I’ll just cut my losses now and let it pass on by.  We’ll see.

Conan the Slayer #1:  Cullen Bunn, writer of the recent “Magneto” series and “The Sixth Gun” as well as Dark Horse’s own “Harrow County,” takes on the mighty barbarian.  Unlike Mr. Wiebe, I’ve generally enjoyed what I’ve read from Bunn and he sounds like a solid fit for the character.  That said, longtime readers should know the drill by now.  Expect a 25-issue run (assuming sales remain steady) where Conan mixes it up with outlaws, runs afoul of dark magic, and beheads a snooty noble or three.  Good fun for the converted, is what I’m betting on seeing here.  Everyone who isn’t can safely ignore this, or go check out volume zero, “Born on the Battlefield,” to see the best of this series from Dark Horse.

Groo:  Fray of the Gods #1:  He’s fought countless battles against all the humans and monsters on this planet that are willing to take him on.  So how does Groo take it to the next level?  Why by becoming an unwitting pawn (not that he could be any other kind) in the battle between the Gods for the spirit and future of mankind.  Regardless of the name or type of deity you follow, rest assured in knowing that getting involved with Groo is certainly the dumbest thing they’ve ever done.  As it is, I’m actually surprised to realize that Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier haven’t done a story like this before.  It’s a twelve-issue maxi-series like “Friends and Foes” and they should have PLENTY of material to work through for the length of it.  Hell, a twenty-four issue maxi-series may not be long enough for this premise.

Neil Gaiman’s Troll Bridge HC:  A companion of sorts to the also-forthcoming “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” in that it also adapts a prose story from Gaiman into comics form.  The adaptor this time is Colleen Doran, who has actually worked with the writer before on a couple issues of “Sandman.”  If you need a reference point, she did the Element Girl story from vol. 3.  The story, which involves a monster who haunted a boy in his childhood continuing to torment him as a man, is in good hands is what I’m saying here.

Predator vs. Judge Dredd vs. Aliens #1 (of 4):  Dredd has faced off against both of these creatures before.  BUT CAN HE TAKE THEM BOTH ON AT THE SAME TIME!!!  If that line didn’t get your blood pumping or cause you to laugh out loud, then this is not the series for you.  Still, the threat of these two alien species doesn’t strike me as the craziest encounter Dredd has ever had.  One of his recurring antagonists is an undead monstrosity that comes from a dimension where life is considered the ultimate crime, after all.  Even if this does just amount to a really crazy weekend in the lawman’s book, writer John Layman sounds like the right guy to deliver it to us.  His years of work on “Chew” have shown that he can take the most insane concepts and wrangle them into a readable form while still managing to make the experience a whole lot of fun.  I’d expect the niche audience for this to be well served by what’s being offered here.

Thor by Jason Aaron (vol. 6): Who Holds the Hammer?

I’ve been spoiled for the mystery behind the new Thor for quite a while now.  So the drama behind the big reveal falls pretty flat.  I was expecting that, however, and the three-part story leading up to the reveal by writer Jason Aaron and artist Russell Dauterman still manages to be pretty entertaining in and of itself.  We’ve got the new Thor throwing down with the Destroyer, who has been sicced on her by Odin and his brother Cul.  The Odinson’s ongoing detective efforts to find out who this new Thor is are interesting enough, but worth it for the hilarity that ensues when his results are revealed to have come to naught.  There’s also Roz Solomon “Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s” continuing campaign to bring down Roxxon and its CEO Dario Agger, who spends most of his time here bonding with Malekith and becoming a little more rounded as a character as we learn more about his backstory.  Dauterman draws the hell out of all this, with the high point being a fantastic mostly-female battle royale against the Destroyer.  It’s only three issues, but this small run satisfies and portends good things for the title’s future.

Rounding out the collection is an Annual featuring two good stories and a pretty great one (along with an old issue of “What If?” which shows that the idea of Jane Foster as Thor is not a new one).  Aaron teams up with Tim Truman for a story about Old Thor’s birthday and how his three granddaughters try to find him the perfect gift.  Truman’s rugged style is a perfect fit for the character and the story which winds up being a welcome extension of what Aaron has been doing with the character.  “Nimona’s” Noelle Stevenson teams with artist Marguerite Sauvage to show us how the new Thor won the trust of the Warriors Three.  It results in a fun bit of high adventure that would’ve benefitted from being told in a longer format.

Best of all is writer C.M. Punk’s story of a most epic night of boozing involving Young Thor and Mephisto.  The former wrestler acquits himself decently here as a writer with an enjoyably goofy story that has Marvel’s Not-The-Devil encountering a rare situation where he doesn’t come off as the smartest man in the room.  I think Loki’s meddling and the ending don’t come off as well as they could have, but what really makes this story great is the art from “Chew’s” Rob Guillory.  Punk’s story is pitched perfectly to the artist’s skills as a cartoonist and the art is simply a joy to behold from beginning to end.  Yes, Guillory’s contribution likely set production on “Chew” back a few weeks.  Much as I love that series, I’d say the results here were worth it.

Batman vol. 8: Superheavy

“And I’d like to go on record as saying this is the dumbest idea in the history of Gotham City.  Now where’s my damn Batmobile?  Let’s go have some fun.”

With those lines I completely bought into the idea of Commissioner James Gordon taking over for Batman in a robot Bat-suit.  Yeah, I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical when I heard about this change.  It’s not that much stranger than the other times Bruce Wayne has been replaced, and writer Scott Snyder has earned enough trust in my book after several years of mostly stellar work on this title.  The end result is that Gordon is right.  If you can buy into the premise behind this volume then you will have fun (but not a damn Batmobile).

Two months have passed since the events of “Endgame” and Gotham is starting to get back to normal.  Save for one big thing.  Batman has been missing in action all this time and people are starting to wonder if he’s ever coming back.  One company has decided not to wait around for him any longer.  Powers International has partnered with the GCPD and developed a robot Bat-suit made out of the most cutting-edge materials and outfitted with state-of-the-art weapons and technology for urban combat.  All it needs is a pilot and CEO Geri Powers thinks it should be Gordon.

The story wastes no time putting the former commissioner into his new role as the first issue cuts back and forth between his debut in the suit and showing how he came to accept it in the first place.  It’s a smart move by Snyder as it gets us right into the action, this time against an energy being tearing apart Gotham’s Little Havana, and skillfully condenses the plot point of how Gordon made the choice we all knew he was going to make in the first place.  Artist Greg Capullo, as always, kills in the action scenes and calmer talking-heads parts.  Particularly in the final page which lets us know that Bruce Wayne is still going to be part of the story.

That first issue, and the ones that follow, also do a very good job of establishing Gordon’s heroic bonafides.  He may not have Batman’s fighting skills, but shows himself to be just as quick a thinker.  After throwing a few punches with the energy creature, Gordon realizes what’s really going on here and uses his deep knowledge of the city to zero in on the bad guy.  I can always appreciate a hero that knows how to use his head and we get to see that several times over in the issues that follow.  Also important is the fact that even as the drama picks up, Snyder never forgets to have fun with the story.  Whether it involves Gordon finding a clever way to use his new Batmobile to take out a bad guy or putting his own spin on the “Batman Disappears While Someone is Talking to Him” trope, you really do get the sense that the former commissioner is enjoying himself in his new role.

Which makes it all the more interesting to see the conflict that stems from his desire to be a Batman that works within the system and subsequent need to work outside of it.  When Gordon gets a lead on Mr. Bloom, the new villain who is supplying seeds that grant superpowers to criminals, he can’t actually pursue it because Powers International isn’t actually part of the police force.  They’ll call him whenever his muscle is needed to take down a bad guy, but he can’t be part of the actual investigation.  So he has to embark on some vigilante-esque investigation in order catch the badguy, just like Batman would.  Gordon’s breaking his own rules, but in a way that makes sense and shows just why an outsider like Batman is so essential to the city itself.

But what about the actual Batman, Bruce Wayne?  He has a fairly large role in the story as himself, much changed.  Completely free of the memories of his life up to this point, Bruce makes a conscious decision to not be the same person after Alfred brings him up to speed on who he used to be (but before the butler can tell him about the whole Batman thing).  Now he’s hooked up with former girlfriend Julie Madison and working with her at the Lucius Fox Center for Gotham Youth.

Even if the solicitations didn’t make it abundantly clear that this isn’t a direction for the character which is going to stick, it’s still a nice fit for the character.  We get to see a Bruce Wayne who isn’t haunted by the death of his parents and is focused on doing good for the city through the means immediately available to him.  Which involve the great visual gag of the man making a children’s playground out of the trophies the Joker stole from the Batcave in the previous volume.  He also has good chemistry with Julie as well.  Snyder manages the tricky task of getting us to care about all of these developments for the character.  Which is important because while it may be obvious to us that none of this will last, it’ll still be missed when it’s gone.

Really, Snyder navigates the trickiness of this new setup with incredible ease and gets me really invested in what’s going to happen next for Gordon and his Bat-suit.  Capullo also turns in excellent work, and I particularly liked his re-design of Gordon, and the new ones for the Bat-suit and Mr. Bloom.  We find out that Gordon’s a former marine and his new shaved look emphasizes that mindset while giving him a cool take-no-crap demeanor.  Capullo’s design for the Bat-suit also has plenty of personality, which is made abundantly clear when it goes into “nimble auto” mode to save his ass at one point.  As for Mr. Bloom… he’s creepy as hell, so “mission accomplished” there.

If I have one complaint for this volume, it’s that there’s only five issues collected here.  This makes for one of the thinner collections of the Snyder/Capullo run.  Granted, the quality of the issues collected here is pretty much worth the cover price even if only four of them advance the story.  The fifth one is a high-end fill-in that was plotted by Snyder, scripted by Brian Azzarello and features art from Jock.  That’s a high-class creative team for a fill-in, and it still manages to be a decent read as a result.  The story takes place not long after the events of “Zero Year” as Batman tries to find out how a teenager wound up dead in the middle of the swamps on Gotham’s outskirts.  His investigation has him confronting the Penguin, one of the local gangs, and a dirty cop while finding out exactly how this kid slipped through the cracks.  It’s a decent enough mystery that does tie back into the main story, even if the “social conscience” parts of it are a bit on the nose and that final scene winds up forcing a point about Batman’s efforts in community outreach.  At least Jock’s artwork is as action-packed as always.

I guess you could say that “Superheavy’s” biggest problem is that it left me wanting more as soon as I was done reading it.  The story cuts off on a pretty dramatic cliffhanger and now I’ll have to wait a few months to find out how it turns out.  Ideally this should have been a big ten-issue hardcover to collect the entire storyline.  Except DC can make a lot more money by splitting it in two because fans like me will still pay for it that way.  That stings a bit, but the quality here is high enough for me to grin and bear it for now.

Ajin: Demi-Human vol. 7

I should hate this series now.  After all, this volume finally breaks the one thing I really liked about the early volumes.  That would be the “Magneto-esque” morality behind Sato’s actions.  Clearly a skilled killer, his actions against the government were somewhat justified in light of the ruthless experimentation and testing being performed on other demi-humans like him by the powers that be.  Even when he crashed a plane into a building full of people, you could still make the argument for ambiguity as the Master of Magnetism has done stuff just as bad in his various campaigns against humans over the years.

However, after we learn more about Sato’s childhood and history in the military, any illusions about his motivations here are stripped away.  The man is nothing more than a thrill seeker who only started this campaign for the challenge it presented.  Now that the government appears to be caving in the face of his attack, he’s bored by it all.  With this, Sato has become a villain and not an antagonist in this series.  Any hints of the moral ambiguity in this conflict that would’ve at least elevated “Ajin” to the level of “X-Men” are firmly quashed.  This is just an action series where the good guys are pitted against the bad guys for survival and all the marbles.

Even if that’s the case, there’s no denying that it’s a story that mangaka Gamon Sakurai feels comfortable telling.  The action scenes have always been the most entertaining parts of this series and that continues to be the case here.  Even if one of them is an awful dream-sequence fake-out, we’re set up for an intense floor-by-floor fight between Kei and Sato’s groups with lots of intense gunplay and bloody hand-to-hand fighting with the demi-human’s IBMs at the end of the volume.  I can at least get behind that.  In fact, I’d probably be more excited about things here if Sakurai had started this series off as a straightforward action series with good guys and bad guys, and no shades of gray.  Now I just look back at the earlier volumes and see their “hot mess” aspects stand out all the more along with lots of wasted potential.

Gotham Academy vol. 2: Calamity

I really enjoyed what writers Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher did with the first volume of the series, along with the art from Karl Kerschl.  This naturally led me to anticipate vol. 2, which has turned out to be a letdown.  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong here as the smooth, engaging storytelling from the first volume has been replaced by something more disjointed and hyperactive.  Take the opening story, which features Maps teaming up with new arrival to the school, Damian Wayne, to solve the mystery of the Inishtree Quill that has bound them together and is causing her friends to act crazy.  The mystery is hazily developed with drama coming from how members of the cast suddenly start acting wildly out of character.  I will say that Maps and Damian make a good team, and I was looking forward to seeing how the latter would interact with the rest of the series’ characters.  Unfortunately, he was only guest-starring for that issue.  If this was the plan all along, then why was his appearance set up at the end of the previous volume?  I was expecting bigger things from Damian’s role here.  At least the issue had some tremendously appealing art from Mingjue Helen Chen.

Kerschl returns for the following issue and maintains the high standard he set for himself in the previous volume.  The problem is that now he’s illustrating a haphazard collection of stories that has Olive, Maps, and co. dealing with the likes of Tristan the Man-Bat, a werewolf, the drama club, one of Batman’s B-list rogues, and a field trip to Gotham City.  Things jump around so much that it’s hard for the narrative to build up much interest or momentum, even when it has the overarching mystery of Olive’s mom to tie everything together.  We do learn more about this deceased(?) supervillain, but not enough to make for a satisfying read in the end.  There’s one more volume of this series scheduled to come out before it takes a several-month hiatus to return for “Rebirth.”  Hopefully vol. 3 will get things back on track and show me that the quality of vol. 1 wasn’t any kind of fluke.

Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl

I’ve been eagerly anticipating this volume since it was announced back in 2012 as we’re helpfully reminded by its backmatter.  I won’t begrudge creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie for taking so long to get back to it, particularly since we got “Young Avengers” and “The Wicked + The Divine” in the meantime.  As those series showed, they remain one of the best creative teams in comics and there was every expectation on my part that this third volume of “Phonogram” wouldn’t disappoint.  Spoiler Warning:  It didn’t.  “The Immaterial Girl” may not hit the sheer heights of fun that “The Singles Club” did, but it winds up being an immensely satisfying conclusion for this series.

The narrative will take you through several different time periods and some lovingly twisted homages to many music videos.  May 2009 is when the majority of this story takes place as we find the responsibilities of managing a coven of Phonomancers is starting to wear on one Emily Aster.  Readers of the first two volumes will remember her as David Kohl’s bitchy confidant and as someone who gave up half of her personality to become the person she is today.  We learn that the specifics of this deal were made to an entity known as the King Behind the Screen and that it was never specified which half would remain in his realm.  So, when Emily laments in a moment of weakness that maybe she gave up the wrong half, guess who seizes the opportunity to wreak some havoc in the real world?  Now all of Emily’s gloomy, dark, and self-destructive impulses are running her life, while the version of the character we’ve known has to find her way out of her own personal hell.  Which resembles several famous music videos.

At its core, “The Immaterial Girl” is a story about growing old and learning to let go of the drama that has weighed you down for most of your life.  Even if it’s only to find new drama.  In Emily’s case, it’s an imaginatively rendered trip through the ruins of what she gave up to become the woman she is today.  We get clever riffs on music videos, with A-Ha’s “Take on Me” being the most prominent, platforming segments based on what albums and artists she used to have featured on her wall, and both sides of her personality having a shouting match in front of her thirteen-year-old self.

Even at its most esoteric the story still remains firmly grounded in personal stakes.  So while Emily may break down at one point into shards of smoke in order to escape her pursuers, you’re still able to relate to her journey.  Yes, her default personality is “rhymes with witch” but she remains sympathetic because of the nature of how her deal goes bad and she’s effectively powerless to prevent the dismantling of the life she’s created.  The story eventually hinges on her being able to seize control of the elements of her life she forsook and determine the real nature of the King Behind the Screen.  It does sound pretty conventional when I lay it out like that.  Yet it’s the experience crafted by McKelvie’s experimental art style in these sections and Gillen’s always cutting, always clever dialogue that makes it into a uniquely compelling experience.

The creators also manage to wring loving tribute to the memory of Michael Jackson at the end of all this.  It’s not something I was expecting to experience when I started reading this volume, but I wound up being glad that I did.

While Emily’s story may be the focus here, it’s not the only one being told.  Protagonist of “Rue Britannia” David Kohl has a fairly substantial role that effectively has him trying to find out what his purpose is here.  That may sound like a fancy way of saying that he’s superfluous to the plot, but his personal journey winds up being just as involving as Emily’s.  While he’s initially used in flashback and the present as a means to showcase Emily’s change in personalities (and provide deliciously snarky dialogue as always), it isn’t until the fifth issue that we start to see what he’s really doing here.

In a normal story, the point at which the story starts focusing on David would be when the protagonist’s supporting cast starts getting their act together to give their leader the support they need.  David desperately wants to play the hero in this case, until the story hammers home the point that he’s not needed here.  Even if he has the power to tip the scales here, it eventually becomes clear to him that the fight here is not his to participate in.  What’s left to him is to simply do right by his friends — which he does in spectacular fashion for Kid With Knife — and move on with his life.  The latter of which involves embracing monogamy and taking a new job with the hated “The Adversary.”  (I’ve been told that the name is a pun and that it’s not necessary that I get it.  I’m still bothered by it, regardless.)  Again, this may sound horribly predictable and/or contrived but the creators treat David’s plight with the amount of sympathy it deserves, which is none at all, and the character’s newfound maturity winds up wearing on him quite well.  It also helps that McKelvie’s “aging” of the character with his receding hairline and paunch fit right in with his arc here.

Last but not least are Lloyd “Mr. Logos” and “Black” Laura, two phonomancers introduced in “The Singles Club” who get an issue and epilogue to themselves as the future for their group.  For anyone who remembers them, that may seem like I’m damning with faint praise.  Lloyd’s pretentiousness knows no bounds while Laura was grasping at everything to forge some kind of identity for herself.  Their issue starts off by showcasing their deep hatred of each other before they’re forced to work together for a Never on a Sunday gathering.  The bickering between the two is great between the incisive dialogue served up by Gillen and the over-the-top metaphorical fighting rendered by McKelvie.  Colorist Matthew Wilson also demonstrates how essential he is to the process here with the issue being mostly in sharp black-and-white before bursting into vivid color at key points.  Essentially, Lloyd and Laura are here to show that the phonomancy scene isn’t dependent on the involvement of Emily and David.  They’re here and ready to do their own thing, and make some new and different mistakes along the way.

Though this is a series about magic, it is also one that flaunts establishing the rules by which it is meant to work.  Magic in “Phonogram” effectively works as the plot dictates that it does.  That’s normally a reason for me to dislike a series, yet I’ve never felt that way towards this one.  Part of it’s because the stories have always focused on the characters and magic has always been a secondary concern.  Another is that the writing and art have always been strong enough to compensate.  I don’t care how the King Behind the Screen is able to do what he does, I want to know how Emily is going to deal with it while saying Gillen’s words and being drawn by McKelvie.  On that level, “The Immaterial Girl” delivers magnificently and provides a good amount of closure for “Phonogram” as a whole.  Yeah, I wish we lived in a world where this series took the world by storm and had a nice 60+ issue run.  As it is, I’ll take what we got with these three great volumes, and continue to enjoy whatever its creators have in store for us next.